Image from V&A Museum of Childhood

Image from V&A Museum of Childhood

I wrote about doll houses in my last post, and thought it was only right that I spent a bit of time on dolls themselves. I have decided not to focus on the use of dolls in rituals or as collectibles, but rather their use as playthings for children throughout history, and touch on the contemporary doll gender divide.

The word ‘doll’ comes from the same root word as ‘idol’. The purpose of iodls has often been religious; something about their uncanny human-ness has meant they were associated with spiritualism and magic, and they were often made to represent a deity.

Dolls have been both crude and elaborate through history – made from clay, wood, stone, ivory, leather and porcelain. Through the middle of the 19th century, European dolls were predominantly made to represent grown-ups. Childlike dolls and the later ubiquitous infant doll did not appear until around 1850. But, by the late 19th century, baby and childlike dolls had overtaken the market.

Dolls can tell us about attitudes and fashions of the time – who they were made for, what they look like, and what they are made from. Barbie, for instance, represents a 1960s desire to be glamorous and fashionable, have a successful career (Barbie has been a model, a popstar, a doctor, a pilot…) and a materialism that sees her collect clothes, furniture and houses like any good mid-twentieth century American girl should.

In my research on the history of dolls I have found many sources that say little girls have always played with dolls. There are stories from Ancient Greece (dating from around 100CE) that indicate that dolls were played with by girls. It is important to question who wrote these, however, and what that might tell us about our attitudes to dolls. I am in no doubt that dolls have been playthings for thousands of years – but were they always just for girls? Boys play with dolls today; dolls for (and of) boys are marketed as toy figures, like Action Man and G.I. Joe. It would make sense that the same desire that makes boys play with Action Man was present when Ancient Greek girls were playing with their clay and cloth dolls, and boys played with those dolls as well. I wonder whether contemporary histories of dolls are trying to justify our own societies obsession with gendering toys.

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

Picture from the V&A Museum of Childhood

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